Misinformation, or even mere scientific confusion, can cause a lot of trouble when it appears to come out of the Centers for Disease Control.
That is what happened when a leaked CDC document helped send a misleading message that vaccinated people spread the new delta variant as readily as the unvaccinated.
This nugget quickly became ammunition for vaccine skeptics and was used against people like Art Krieg, a rheumatologist and biotech founder who has been passionate about promoting vaccines — even more so after his vaccinated 90-year-old father died on July 30 from COVID-19.
Krieg’s specialty, rheumatology, deals with autoimmune diseases and the immune system, and his company, Checkmate Pharmaceuticals, specializes in a product he discovered, called CpG DNA, which can be used in vaccines. I’ve spoken with him a number of times through the pandemic to understand the nuts and bolts of vaccine science.
Krieg took to Twitter to tell people of his father’s death and plead the case that people should get vaccinated to protect others by lowering the amount of virus in circulation. He believes his vaccinated father might not have died if more people had accepted the shots.
Comments followed — mostly supportive ones, he told me. “But I had several people who said, ‘dude, vaccinated people spread the infection just as much … learn the facts.’”
And this time the facts appeared to come from the CDC and not some conspiracy theorist’s website.
So what are the facts? The scientific consensus holds that vaccines cut down on both illness and asymptomatic “cases” and so make the world safer for those who are still vulnerable due to age or health conditions.
Krieg said his father lived in a retirement home in central Pennsylvania and got his Pfizer shots early in the year, as soon as they were available to people in his age group.
But he had an immune condition, called monoclonal gammopathy, which in addition to his advanced age made him vulnerable. He stayed home most of the time, but then in July, the perfect storm of events happened — a fall, then a trip to the emergency room during a local surge in COVID-19 cases.
The hospital was so busy, Krieg said, that it took five hours for his father to be seen. The COVID-19 diagnosis came a week later.
He doesn’t argue that his father caught the virus from an unvaccinated person — though he thinks the odds are about 20 to 1 that he did. The bigger issue is that the odds of his father being infected would have been much lower and the hospital less crowded if more people in the area had been vaccinated.
“The key point is that if you’re vaccinated, you’re much less likely to become infected, and if you get infected, you’re much less likely to infect other people because the infection is cleared more rapidly,” he said.
That’s very different from the message the news media took away from the CDC’s statement last week.
What the CDC actually said came from an internal document leaked to the Washington Post and quickly picked up by the New York Times. But that doesn’t mean the contents represent a consensus view or any kind of message the CDC intended to broadcast. The public may wrongly think leaked material is more authentic because it wasn’t intended for publication, but in science that’s not necessarily the case.
The document said that the delta variant is as transmissible as chicken pox — a disease that may not be familiar to younger Americans. It also said that vaccinated people who get infected had viral loads that were as high as those in unvaccinated people. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are as likely to transmit the disease as unvaccinated people but it’s a worrisome sign.
The statements were based on an analysis done after an outbreak following the July Fourth weekend in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Part of that weekend was raw, wet and windy — better for indoor socializing than meeting on beaches. Provincetown is known as a gathering place for gay men and, as the New Yorker noted, the rate of HIV positivity is much higher than the national average. It’s a condition that would likely reduce the efficacy of vaccines.
Scientists disagree on how to interpret the viral load measurements, but for the most part agree the vaccinated are still much less likely to get infected in the first place. Some experts, such as UC San Francisco infectious disease specialist Monica Gandhi, say that, if anything, breakthrough cases are overcounted because the COVID-19 PCR tests will come up positive even if all that’s present is inactivated virus left over after being wiped out by vaccine-induced immunity. She thinks many asymptomatic positive tests in vaccinated people aren’t real infections.
The message some people are drawing from the Provincetown outbreak is that people should still all be wearing masks in public. That might help some, but the best messaging is transparent and honest. Krieg’s father probably picked up the virus in a waiting room where masks were almost certainly required.
So relying on masks alone makes no sense when vaccines have proved to be safe and effective. The message that the shots don’t protect others isn’t supported by the data, but for the vaccine hesitant, it was appealing.
When, last June, podcaster Joe Rogan questioned whether young, healthy people should get the shots, the lesson the public health community should have learned was that they’ve done a terrible job explaining why people should get vaccinated even if they’re not at high risk of severe COVID-19 and don’t live with grandma or grandpa.
The reason isn’t that complex: Getting vaccinated cuts down on the amount of virus in circulation and reduces the odds that people such as Art Krieg’s father will die. That message is not only coherent but it’s been consistently true since the vaccines became available. Contrary to the much-hyped “leaked” opinion of someone at the CDC, the war hasn’t completely changed.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Follow the Science.”
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